LITTLE FALLS, N.J. -- Almost as remarkable as the New York Red Bulls' improbable ride to the MLS Cup championship game has been the lineup the team has utilized in their late-season run.
As the Red Bulls prepare to face the Columbus Crew on Sunday in Carson, Calif., for the Major League Soccer title, the team is starting four players who saw no playing time earlier in the season.
In fact, when the MLS season began last April, goalkeeper Danny Cepero was on loan, playing for a minor league team in Harrisburg, Pa.; defender Diego Jimenez was playing for a Mexican team; defender Luke Sassano was a rookie; and midfielder Sinisa Ubiparipovic was a little-used second-year player, struggling for playing time.
But with a month to go in the regular season, Red Bulls coach Juan Carlos Osorio was forced to make radical alterations to his lineup, especially after starting goalkeeper Jon Conway and top defender Jeff Parke were suspended for using performance-enhancement drugs.
The changes included putting Sassano, Jimenez and Ubiparipovic into the lineup, replacing some high-priced imports that Osorio personally recruited, and turning the responsibility of guarding the goal to Cepero, who never played a single minute for the franchise for two years.
It's turned out to be a brush of genius -- the Red Bulls are now at a point where the franchise has never been before in its 13-year history.
Cepero has gone from a virtual unknown to becoming the first goalie in the league's history to score a goal, not to mention shutout victories over Houston and Real Salt Lake in the Western Conference semifinals and finals.
"The players have been pretty adamant about just letting me know that they have the utmost confidence in me as a goalkeeper," Cepero said. "They said I was here for a reason ... I think the team chemistry just grew from there."
Sassano, the Red Bulls' third-round draft pick from the University of California, never dreamed he would be playing a major role right away.
"You never know when your opportunity will come up," Sassano said. "All season long, I worked hard every day, just so I could be ready if I was called upon. I was a little nervous about getting the big responsibility, but I was also excited to get my chance. But I never thought this could happen."
"It's been a bit of a whirlwind, to have my first year and be starting and playing for a championship," he said. "What more can I ask for?"
Ubiparipovic, a native of Bosnia, was the Red Bulls' third-round draft pick in 2007 out of the University of Akron. He has seen limited action in his two seasons with the team, and only became a starter right before the playoffs.
"I learned that I always have to be ready to play," Ubiparipovic said. "It's definitely a little wild how this all happened. It's really what every kid dreams of."
Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press